Our oft-times quoted, long-time TPM Reader JB, a former Republican Hill staffer, checks in with his read …
As you can imagine, I read reports of the Democrats’ reaction to the Massachusetts election with some interest, particularly the comment you posted Wednesday afternoon from the Democratic Senate staffer who can’t say what the Democrats stand for. I have a theory about this.
Actually, my theory borrows heavily from Zell Miller’s. Miller was the former Georgia governor whose critique of his party was dismissed by many because he voted with the Republicans when he went to the Senate. Miller, though, was also a shrewd observer of politics and politicians. His theory was that Democrats were basically driven by organized interest groups with very specific policy agendas.
Think about this for a minute. Under what circumstances do such groups, and the politicians they sponsor, get what they want? It helps if they are playing defense, seeking to block changes instead of trying to promote them. It helps some more if their agendas don’t directly contradict those of other organized groups supporting “their” Democratic politicians (the broader the scope of a “group’s” policy agenda, the bigger this problem is). Finally, it helps — a lot — if the interest group knows, specifically, what it wants.
You see the problem health care reform presents not only for Democratic politicians, but for the interest groups they rely on for everything from campaign cash to policy advice. Health care reform means playing offense. Health care reform brings all sorts of organized interests in conflict with one another. Many Democratic interests favor health care reform only generally, tepidly, because the President wants it or because they sort of think it’s the right thing to do. The details they don’t care about so much, except details they object to. Health care is far from the only policy area in which Democrats have this problem.
National Democratic politicians, and modern Democratic Presidents in particular, have been acutely conscious of the dominance of organized interests within the party. This, I think, is why Carter, Clinton and now Obama have so often come off as men trying to tip-toe their way through complex situations without making anyone important to them really unhappy. The majority of Americans who are outside Democratic Party politics and “the groups” look at this and see weakness, even fecklessness. They also see an unwillingness to listen to them, which is only partly wrong. National Democrats do listen, but lack confidence that acting on what they hear from the public rather than “the groups” will produce victory.
In this sense Barack Obama is very much in the mold of his Democratic predecessors in the White House. I do not know how conscious he is of this, so I don’t know what he will choose as his way forward. Off his past record, he will see a restive public and Democratic politicians representing groups that he can’t keep happy if he persists in seeking comprehensive health care reform and will wait to bring it up again another day, however distant that day may be. This, of course, is what Clinton did, and since President Obama and his team seem to have studied Clinton’s experience with health care it is possible he will choose another course.
Let me add one thing about Obama. I’m not sure he really understands why he got elected in 2008. I hear all the rhetoric he’s used since the campaign about “changing the culture in Washington” and his references to his own life story as part of the answer to any question, and think he can’t possibly believe all that. But he might, as Carter and Clinton both believed their own stories. All three of these guys excelled at the mechanics of campaign politics, but the first two got into a lot of trouble thinking that Americans put them in the White House because of all the wonderful, special qualities they had or represented.
Carter and Clinton were both wrong. A Southern governor does not get elected President in 1976 if not for Watergate. A governor of a small state with a history of womanizing doesn’t get elected President in 1992 if he’s not running against a President who sees a recession and shrugs his shoulders. And there is no way — none whatsoever, not a chance in the world — that a black guy gets into the White House in 2008 if the incumbent Republican President is not more unpopular, for longer, than any modern President.
George W. Bush’s unpopularity was Barack Obama’s greatest political asset during the 2008 campaign, and nothing else was even close. No one wanted to be known as a Bush Republican; even today, Republicans do not accuse Obama of wrecking the great work Bush did as President. They know no one would believe that. Obama hasn’t used this asset at all, not really. As far as he and his team have been concerned, there is no such thing as a Bush Republican. Opposition to health care reform is not the Bush Republican position; support for bonuses on Wall Street is not what Bush would do. There are no references to Bush incompetence, none to Bush corruption. If Bush had left office with 70% approval, or 50% approval, or even 40%, the silence of Obama and the Democrats about Bush would be sound politics. Then again, if any of these things had been true, John McCain would be President now.
This isn’t an argument about the merits of policy. It’s all politics. Ask yourself, is it easier to pass a difficult, complex legislative agenda when the country is under stress if the opposition party is seen as the Party of Bush, or if the opposition party is able to begin redefining itself as the party of populism, or of un-Washingtonism, or of fiscal restraint? Give the opposition party a fresh start, for free, and you’ve bought yourself all manner of trouble. That’s really the only transformative development Obama has presided over so far.